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Life-Savers At Play -- Inside Sydney's Lightsaber Academy

07/12/2015 12:25 PM AEDT | Updated 05/08/2016 3:58 PM AEST
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The electric blue of the lightsaber doesn't distract a true master of The Force, even as it cuts an arc in front of his nose, his back and around again in a high arc above his head.

Luke Boyton calls this move The Anakin.

"Being present, like mindfulness and awareness of what's going on around you, to me that's The Force," Boyton, the founder of the Sons of Obiwan Lightsaber Academy told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Because when you're truly there you actually see the world for what it is."

This is how Boyton's world is: the special needs educator, DJ and martial artist has always lead an imaginative life. His arms an legs are covered in tattoos -- the X-Men's Nightcrawler, symbols from the vampire flick Blade.

After about seven years as a special needs educator, the 40-year-old Boyton began to search for new ways to engage his kids.

So The Sons of Obiwan Lightsaber Academy was born -- a school buried in an industrial estate in Tuggerah, on the NSW Central Coast.

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Matthew, 10, uses "The Force" to knock back his instructor during training.

The Academy -- which caters for adults, kids and special needs students -- is less than five months old, and was born a year ago in Boyton's mind with encouragement from his girlfriend Amanda.

Its true birth, however, came more than 30 years ago, when Boyton first saw the now classic story about the farm boy who grew up to become a galactic knight and saved the galaxy.

And so after meeting a group of kids as part of his special needs education role, Boyton found a new way to engage them in learning -- by wrapping it all up in stage-fighting, acting lessons and Jedi cloaks.

"We call it Jedi-mind trick training because we say actually say right, come and learn about lightsabers, but in reality we're teaching them life skills -- how to focus, how to listen to instructions, follow instructions," he said.

"There's a lot of life lessons you can bury in the training and they don't realise they're actually doing it. It's a good way to slide it in the back door."

For Luke the Academy is also about giving back. Luke's daughter -- who now wields a lightsaber under the name Padawan Snoop -- was born with complications and spent three months in intensive care. The first thing the Academy did was raise money for Gosford Hospital's Children's Ward.

Later the mother of an autistic student points to her son, who has set down his lightsaber briefly to bury his nose in a Star Wars book. "He head's straight for that couch when he gets here," she said.

"You see, the Star-Wars stuff normalises reading," said Boyton.

Heather Kozak's son Max has cerebral palsy and autism. He's cutting fast streaks of lightening through the darkness of the academy with his blue "blade" -- the braces on his legs seem to spark briefly as he whips the 'saber past them and up into the darkness.

"It's very hard for him to fit in, hard for him to have friends," Ms Kozak said.

But since starting classes four months ago he's started socialising, and acquiring new balance.

"All the kids have issues, and they're all normal kids in this environment," she said.

Chris Brooke's son Paul has Aspergers. Like Heather, they found the 'Saber Academy shortly after it opened four months ago. Paul had been to other social classes, but had been bullied, said Brooke.

"He lives and breathes it," she said.

"All he wants to do is come here.

"He comes in, he feels welcome, no one judges anyone."

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The Lightsabers are made of super-hard perspex and mostly imported from the US, however at the Academy they customise the hilt for students with disabilities.

Children on the spectrum can range from having very high cognitive abilities to very low, and everything in and between, and also have a great ability to hyper-focus in subjects they're interested in, said Dr Emma Goodall, from the University of South Australia's School of Education.

"This is why if an autistic can work in a field they are interested or passionate about, they are excellent employees or business owners," she told the Huffington Post in an email.

A reason it can be difficult for people with autism to learn is that many prefer to have new skills both explicitly explained and demonstrated due to either auditory processing difficulties and/or difficulties with executive functioning, she said.

Many are also perfectionists -- a great skill for employers, but it can be problematic in schools where children are required to stop tasks before they have finished, or are asked to do tasks which don't have clear parameters around them.

"Sharing a mutually interesting activity is the easiest way to be social for many autistics and can lead to great friendships," Dr Goodall said.

"In addition the very explicit and intentional teaching being used in the classes is a very effective teaching method for all students not just those on the spectrum.

"For people on the spectrum not interested in Star Wars it may not be as effective."

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"There's a lot of life lessons buried in the training," says Sons of Obiwan Lightsaber Academy founder Luke Boyton.

But so far it's been effective for Boyton and his students, who he says come to the academy to be themselves, relax and enjoy the fantasy of it.

He has plans to expand the reach of his class -- he told The Huffington Post he will soon start crafting lightsabers with special grips for students muscular disabilities.

"A group of people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, can be quite confronting for people that aren't used to dealing with that," he said.

"Part of being a teacher is reading what a person needs to work on to feel better about themselves and within themselves. That's what we do.

"They take that out into the world with them."

This story was originally published on December 7, 2015.